Miracle Workers: rescuing data from the jaws of disaster

Even if you've dropped your laptop or your server has been set on fire, all hope is not lost. Data recovery companies such as Kroll Ontrack could still rescue your valuable files. Jim Martin dons a white lab coat and goes behind the scenes at a data recovery lab.

At some point in the past - perhaps even today - you've no doubt experienced that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach after accidentally deleting an important file or folder. That feeling is even worse if your hard disk fails and you lose its entire contents, including months or years' worth of work, documents, finances, photos, videos and music.

If you've simply deleted a file, the good news is that it's almost always possible to recover it as the file still exists on your hard drive; the area it occupies has simply been marked as available for other data to be written over it. However, if your disk has been dropped, set on fire, submerged in water or any other horror, it might rattle or stop spinning entirely. Here, things become a lot more complicated.

Computer Weekly's fire damaged camera and SD memory card

Computer Weekly's fire damaged digital camera and SD card

The cleaned and extracted memory chip from the SD card

The extracted and cleaned memory chip from the SD card

Whatever your situation, there are data recovery companies that can attempt to restore your precious data and return your life to normality. One such firm is Kroll Ontrack, based in Epsom, Surrey. IT Pro visited their facility to see how engineers are able to recover lost data in special clean rooms.

Due process

The process starts with a call to one of Ontrack's data recovery team to discuss exactly what has happened, and work out the most cost effective way to recover it. Data on just about every medium can be recovered, from magnetic tape through to the latest SSDs (solid-state drives) including USB flash drives and memory cards in your phone or camera.

Even if the data is stored on a RAID array or in a virtual machine, Ontrack can usually recover it. Robert Winter, Ontrack's Engineering Manager, gave us a guided tour of the lab and explained that, "data is recoverable in the vast majority of cases". Even if the contents of your drive have become corrupted due to a virus or some malfunction, there's still hope.

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